For many foreign football fans, the road to the World Cup in Doha begins every morning in an arid campsite in the middle of the desert.
Visitors who have found hotels in central Doha to be full or well beyond their budget have settled in the dusty remote tent village of Al Khor, where there are no locks on tents or draft beers.
Others simply wanted an adventure. During the night, a DJ blasted electronic dance music around a fire pit as a group of fans lounged on beanbags, sipped soft drinks and watched big screens about an hour from Doha.
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“I’m here because I couldn’t find anywhere else,” said Haidar Haji, a 27-year-old architectural engineer from Kuwait. He said it was painful to drive to Doha every morning from the tent village, but he had no other choice.
“The hotels were just too expensive. It was crazy.”
Even so, Al Khor Fan Village is not cheap. Haji said he pays more than $650 a night for his sparse makeshift shelter, which authorities tout as a “perfect destination for a truly enjoyable and lavish stay”.
The tents are equipped with basic plumbing and furniture. The site has a swimming pool and an upscale Arabic restaurant.
From the moment Qatar was named host of the World Cup, fears mounted over how the tiny country would find rooms for the massive influx of 1.2million fans, nearly a third of its population.
Qatar’s frenetic construction program has delivered tens of thousands of rooms in new hotels, rented apartments and even three giant cruise liners. But soaring prices have forced many thrifty fans to travel to remote desert campsites and giant fan villages on the outskirts of Doha, including one near the airport made up of halls of corrugated boxes.
In the village of Al Khor, many fans complained about the isolation and the lack of alcohol.
“Honestly, you can find more alcohol in Tehran,” said Parisa, a 42-year-old Iranian oil worker, citing the political situation in Iran.
She stared blankly in the common area of the campground and said she didn’t know how to spend her time. Doha’s posh hotel bars were miles away. “We thought they would open up more for foreigners to have fun.”
Paola Bernal from Tabasco in southern Mexico wasn’t sure what to expect from the first World Cup in the Middle East. But she said she was surprised how long it took to cross the world’s smallest host country. Campsite buses are a “mess”, she said, and stop at 10 p.m., forcing fans to shell out big bucks for Uber rides.
“There are such long distances, I don’t know how,” she said.
Although some stadiums are connected to Doha’s gleaming new metro network, they often require a 2.5km walk from the stations. Other grounds can only be reached by bus, with some drop-offs a short walk from the stadium gates – and desirable bars and restaurants even further afield.
The arid lands of Al Khor are no paradise for selfie lovers. But Nathan Thomas, a site designer, said he was very pleased with the “authentic Arabic” result. The only major concern, he said, is safety. Not all tents are within sight of a guard post. The tents do not have locks. Their flaps untie easily.
“We keep telling people this is a safe country, don’t worry,” he said.
From the Free Zone Fan Village in the desert south of Doha, fans dragged suitcases across wide stretches of artificial turf under the glare of stadium lights. Crafted cabins are some of the cheapest accommodations available, starting at around $300 a night. Every few minutes, low-flying planes fly over the village to the old airport, which has been reopened to handle daily shuttles to the tournament. Banners pasted over the trailers urge fans to “cheer up.”
Just days before the tournament, social media was filled with images of toilets that had yet to be installed and wires still coiled on the ground to hook up water and electricity.
Many have complained about excessively long waits for check-in. A crowd of guests queuing said they couldn’t get their room because reception wasn’t sure who had already checked out. “We wanted good vibes, good energy, to be with other people,” said Mouman Alani from Morocco. “It’s very disorganized.”
A camper on Twitter blasted the site as “Fyre Festival 2.0”, referring to an infamous music festival billed as a luxury getaway that left fans scrambling for makeshift shelters on a dark beach.
“When we went to our room, everything was messed up,” said Aman Mohammed, 23, from Kolkata, India. He said he waited two hours in the scorching sun for a cleaner to arrive the day before. “It stunk so much, like a bad bathroom. It was pathetic.”
But, he insisted, there was no false advertising. The website shows dozens of colorful metal boxes side by side in a vast dusty terrain. And despite his disappointment, he said, the World Cup was ultimately about the football on show.
“(Cristiano) Ronaldo is playing his last World Cup, I’m here just to see him,” said Mohammed, referring to the superstar competing for Portugal in the tournament. “Participating in this has been a dream for me since I was a child.
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